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Popping Pills a Popular Way to Boost Brain Power

Boosting Brain Power 12:28

If there were a drug that would make you smarter, would you take it? Today an increasing number of healthy people are using drugs without a prescription as a way to improve their mental function.

It's called neuroenhancement and if you want to find someone who's trying it out, just visit a college campus. That's where a surprising number of students are turning to drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, originally developed to treat attention disorders, to boost their brain power and help them make the grade.

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"How common is it to see friends just poppin' pills during finals?" correspondent Katie Couric asked a group of students.

"It's the norm. For sure," a student replied.

"Do you actually see them popping pills, or do they just say, 'I just had an Adderall so I'm ready to go?'" Couric asked.

"Either or," another student replied.

"I mean, if you're in the library you might see someone taking one or, you know, someone will come out and be like, 'Oh, I just took an Adderall and I just finished my five page paper in three hours,'" another student added.

These students are among the nearly 20,000 undergraduates at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. They range from a sophomore to a recent graduate but they all agree taking Adderall is common practice on campus when students need to pull an all-nighter to churn out a paper or cram for an exam.

"Everybody's trying to get an edge. And I mean, and if you can take a pill that will help you study all night to get that grade you need, I mean, a lotta people don't see why they wouldn't do it," a student explained.

Adderall is an amphetamine that came on the market in 1996. Along with Ritalin, another stimulant, it's prescribed to increase mental focus in people with attention disorders.

"I've taken them to study for tests and write papers and things like that. I mean, I've never even been tested for ADD but they do work," Lauren, a junior, told Couric.

She was the only student who told us she has taken the drug without a prescription. "If I've taken it, I can stay awake and I feel productive, I want to be doing what I'm doing," Lauren said.

"I understand that it can make boring work actually more interesting," Couric remarked.

"If I'm not on Adderall I'll read something and I'm not really interested at all, you're just trying to keep yourself focused, but then, you take an Adderall and you all of the sudden are just totally consumed in what you're doing," she explained.

"Does anyone think, though, it makes them have a better grasp or understanding of the material?" Couric asked the students.

"I'd say it's more…it makes you more detail oriented than anything else. If you're detail oriented and you're focused, everything becomes a lot easier to understand than when you're not on it," a student replied.

But is there science to back up their claims?

At the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, psychiatrist Nora Volkow is testing stimulants - in this case Ritalin - on a subject who's sleep-deprived, similar to a college student who's been up all night studying.

Dr. Volkow's study shows that Ritalin works in a healthy brain the same way it does in the brain of someone with an attention disorder. In areas of the brain, stimulants trigger an increase of the chemical dopamine.

Asked what dopamine exactly does, Volkow said, "Dopamine is like a messenger. It activates the rest of the cells in the brain to pay attention."

"They make you more alert, focused, interested, motivated," she explained.

Alan DeSantis, a communications professor at the University of Kentucky, says he was so baffled by his students' casual use of Adderall, he decided to study it.

"When we asked the students why they use ADHD stimulants, many refer to it as a steroid for the brain," he told Couric.

In a survey of nearly 2,000 students at the university, DeSantis found that 34 percent of undergraduates overall had taken attention deficit drugs illegally without a prescription. And that number climbs the longer they're in school.

"If you were to ask what percentage of juniors and seniors are using ADHD stimulants, the number is well above 50, pushing 60 percent. And if you add in juniors and seniors who are in fraternities and sororities, the number is up about 80 percent," DeSantis explained.

And he discovered where all the pills are coming from.

"About four percent of our college campus has, actually, legal prescriptions. But what we have found is that while they may get 30 doses, they very rarely would ever take a dose everyday. Which means, at the end of the month, there is always anywhere from 10 to 20 surplus pills left over. And these are the surplus pills that are doled out," DeSantis said.

When Couric asked the students how much a pill cost, they said it depends on the dosage, but generally between three to five dollars.

Asked if they know anyone who has faked symptoms of ADHD in order to get a prescription of Adderall, a student said yes.

"I'd say it's not that hard. I mean the symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder are you're not able to focus, have trouble concentrating. You know, if you go in and tell a doctor that, I would say, you know, at least eight out of ten times he's gonna say, 'Oh well, you probably have Attention Deficit Disorder,'" another explained.

"Does anyone see anything wrong with taking Adderall to focus or to be more productive?" Couric asked.

"I definitely do. I feel that it is an unfair advantage. If the person next to me that has the exact same schedule takes an Adderall they can stay up the entire night knowing the material and come in and make a grade better than me," a student told Couric.

Asked if that tempts her to take it, she said, "I mean it is somewhat tempting but at the same time I'm just so proud that I've come this far and I know when I look at my grades that it is purely by my own ability."

Professor DeSantis says his study showed that so many students are taking the pills because they believe there's a big payoff.

"About 43 percent said it improved their overall scores by one letter grade and about the same percentage said it improved their grade by two letter grades. And so, these are students believing they'd get a C without it that are now earning A's," he explained.

Martha Farah, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania wants to find out if Adderall is really giving students the edge they think it is.

She is using a variety of tests - from visual memorization, to creativity, to the math SAT - to determine how Adderall impacts performance. Her research subjects don't know if they are given 20 milligrams of Adderall or a placebo.

One student told Couric she thought she had taken the real thing.

How did it affect her?

"I found that the task might have been a little easier to get through," she explained.

Farah says some studies have actually shown the drugs hurt performance in certain people. And she worries that it may make others so overly focused they get tunnel vision and lose creativity.

"With math problems often you can find kind of a more elegant, easier way to find the solution, or you can have kind of a brute force, just trying to plug out all the numbers and get the answer that way," a student told Couric. "I felt like when I thought I was on the pill it was much harder for me to find those more elegant solutions to the problems."

Although Farah says she's troubled by the use of Adderall on college campuses, she's convinced that cosmetic neurology - enhancing our brains with medication - will one day be as commonplace as cosmetic surgery.

"People are looking for ways to improve themselves physically and mentally. And just saying, you know, 'Tut, tut, this is a bad thing. Medicine should just be reserved for sick people, end of story,' is a mistake," she said. "More smart people are more likely to discover a cure for cancer."

Along with six other scientists and ethicists, Farah published a commentary last year in Nature magazine, encouraging people to "welcome new methods of improving our brain function."

"I think one reason this article created a lot of controversy is not only did you endorse the use of neuroenhancers, but you compared them to exercise, nutrition and sleep. Is that a stretch?" Couric asked.

"We of course were not saying, 'So you don't need to go to school, and you can stay up all night just take a pill.' We were trying to call attention to the fact that improving your cognitive ability, improving your ability to learn, that these are all good things," Farah explained.

Dr. Nora Volkow thinks that was irresponsible. "And I respect my colleagues and many of them I admire them. But, in this case I completely disagree with them."

Volkow is not only a scientist, she's the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She cautions that stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin can be addictive, so much so they're in the same class of drugs as cocaine. They can cause heart and blood pressure problems, and the long term effect on the developing brains of young people without an attention disorder is still unknown.

Dr. Volkow stresses that the drugs are most dangerous when crushed and snorted, which leads to a quick high, but she warns that even casual use of the drugs without a prescription can escalate and lead to addiction.

"What would you say to college students who think this is no big deal at all, that they can self-medicate and they have it completely under control?" Couric asked.

"We all want to believe that we are under control to justify whatever we want to do. The reality is there are side effects of these drugs. One of them is addiction. But another one can be psychosis. So it's not worth the risk to be playing with a drug that has potentially very adverse effects. Addiction is not a pretty face," Volkow replied.

When Couric asked students if they worry getting addicted to it, one said, "I know that it's an addictive drug, and I have thought about it, and if I ever felt that I needed it, I would, you know, go and get help for that. I mean, I've never felt like I need Adderall."

"What do you guys think? Do you think that kids will be able to just stop cold turkey after they get that diploma?" Couric asked.

"I think that's yet to be seen. So, I think we're kinda the first guinea pig generation that's grown up with this," another student replied.

Brandon Adams started taking Adderall in college; now 31, he teaches economics at Harvard.

"A lot of attention has been given to undergraduates taking these drugs. But what about people like professors?" Couric asked.

"I think it's extremely common. It's extremely common in all of the professions from what I've seen," Adams said.

He admits he recently finished writing a book with the help of Adderall.

"There I would probably average twice a week," he admitted.

"So you'd take one in the morning when you really had to focus on writing and you'd be able to have a very productive day?" Couric asked.

"Yes," he replied.

Adams says other drugs are also being used as neuroenhancers. One he has tried is Provigil, first developed to treat the symptoms of the rare sleep disorder narcolepsy.

"People found that it was helpful as a stimulant for, you know, working in law offices and in academics and stuff like this. So I would say it's in the past five to ten years that it's become popular as a performance enhancer," Adams said.

Last year alone there were more than two million Provigil prescriptions filled, some for truck drivers on long hauls and doctors working around the clock. The Air Force has even approved Provigil for fighter pilots on extended combat missions. And as scientists continue to better understand how the mind works, it's likely we'll soon see new, more potent drugs that can be used to boost your brain power.

"What do you think of the notion of in the future these kinds of drugs being perfectly acceptable and, in fact, encouraged so that we can maximize our potential in terms of our intelligence?" Couric asked students.

"It's a brave new world," a student replied.

"It's a big moral question, I think, about how you want to alter your mind. And that's kind of what Adderall is, I guess, is how do you feel about it morally. And I think our general consensus is we're, most people are okay with it," another added.

Produced by Denise Schrier Cetta and Anya Bourg

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